I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for the short film Pumzi (Pumzi means ‘breath’ in Swahili). The film has been travelling around the US but I haven’t heard if it is coming to Canada. As a Sci-Fi fan, I would love to see more African Sci-Fi films. South Africa’s District 9 was visually stunning with a great plot but it had no Black African central characters. I want to see more Black African Sci-Fi heroes on film; they already are coming up in fiction, thanks to the work of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian American whose fantasy novel Zahrah the Windseeker I recently reviewed (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Review).
The film is directed by young Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu who studied film at UCLA. Kahiu won Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for her film From a Whisper, about the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar el Salaam, Tanzania. I unknowingly had already seen her work as a director because she directed the behind the scenes documentary for Philip Noyce’s film Catch a Fire, which is based on a true story of a regular oil worker who becomes a freedom fighter in apartheid South Africa. She also directed a documentary about the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai.
Pumzi is a Kenyan/South African co-production. Its South African producers are Simon Hansen (who produced the short film Alive in Joburg which became the feature film District 9), Hannah Slezacek and Amira Quinlan of Inspired Minority Pictures. Kahiu was able to come up with the grant to finance the film from the Goethe Institut, Focus Features (which also produced District 9), and the Changamoto Fund. The film was shot over two weeks on location in South Africa. There were no Kenyan actors used. The film runs for about 21 minutes. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes, where it won Best Short Film. Kahiu is now working on trying to develop Pumzi into a feature-length film.
The film is set in East Africa 35 years after World War Three, the “Water War”. The war has caused large-scale ecological devastation. Put simply, “nature is extinct”. The land is uninhabitable so humans must leave inside specially sealed compounds. Humans only have recycled urine to drink.
The central character of the film is Asha, played by Kudzani Moswela, a South African model and actress. Asha is a curator at a virtual natural history museum in the Maitu community, which is one of these compounds. One day she receives a sample of soil that is not toxic and she decides to use it to plant a seed she has in her possession. It starts to grow! Asha wishes to see if the soil sample is indicative that there is plant life on Earth again. In order to get permission to go outside she must apply for a visa from the authorities of the Maitu community. She is denied. Asha then decides to break out of the compound in order to see what is happening on the Earth’s surface for herself.
Kahiu has written the following statement about writing and directing the film:
There is no part of myself that has not been involved in the making PUMZI. PUMZI has invaded my every thought, my dreams, my senses. PUMZI has been my heart and it’s rhythm.
The film started as a joke. A friend and I pondered the possibility of living in a place where we paid for air. We invented the city, the virtual natural museums, the people. That was over 2 years, many tears, much frustration and several re-writes before the film was ready to go into production. At some point, the Universe (with help from Kisha Cameron) conspired and introduced me to the Producers of the film and it was a perfect fit. They were passionate about the project, profoundly knowledgeable about Sci-Fi and exceptionally generous with their expertise and resources. During pre-production one potential crewmember commented that making Pumzi (based on the budget and the ambition we had) was like pulling a rabbit out of a chicken’s ass’. Naturally he wasn’t hired, but the crew who were went above and beyond what was expected.
A week before the shoot was scheduled to start we had not cast the lead character, Asha. And then Kudzani Moswela walked in. Her audition, her presence and her excitement for life dissipated any doubt. She was Asha. She breathed into the film unimaginable softness and courage. She became the heart of my heart. Her interpretation of Asha and the story was painfully tender and through it new, undiscovered layers of the film came alive.
Now, years, months and many painful Visual Effects hours later, Pumzi is finished. More beautiful, more poignant, more charming than anyone expected. Pumzi is a visual ode to life. A life that (as described by Lorraine Hansberry)has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful and that which is love. Pumzi is the essence of all these. Pumzi is my breath.
In an interview with Kenya’s Daily Nation, Kahiu states:
Wangari Maathai has been talking about this issue for years and we never heed her advice so I am not here to tell people to conserve the environment alone, I am showing them what will happen if we don’t.
According to Wired.com, Kahiu researched classic 1950s films to create Pumzi’s futuristic sets, comparing the processes of matte painting and rear-screen projection with indigenous African artwork. Kahiu states:
We already have a tradition of tapestries and functional art and things like that, that loan a backdrop for films.
Being a filmmaker in Africa is not easy. Not only is it hard to get financing for films, it is also not a respected profession. Kahiu, whose mother is a doctor and whose father is a businessman, still struggles for recognition even in her family. In an interview with CNN she said:
I have aunts who come up and say ‘Oh, you’re still doing that thing?’ like I should move out of it, or it’s a phase I’m passing through.
It is also particularly difficult to be a woman filmmaker. As Kahiu reflects:
The success of Kathryn Bigelow shows how, even in 2010, it’s still like ‘Oh my gosh! A woman made a film that’s winning awards!’ It’s ridiculous.
Kahiu is committed to building a profitable film industry in Kenya. She says:
I would like to work and build an industry, so that everyone walks away well-paid, with great hours.
Kahiu would advise young African filmmakers to do the following:
To write their own stories. Their own experience as Africans. And to plant a tree.
Website for the film Pumzi
Trailer for the film Pumzi
Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in the Kenya Daily Nation available online
Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in Jamati.com available online
Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by CNN available online
Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Wired.com
Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by Bird’s Eye View
Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Vogue Black
Website for Kahiu’s film From a Whisper
Trailer for the film From a Whisper
Watch Kahiu’s short film Ras Star available online
Website of Awali Entertainment Ltd, co-founded by Kahiu
Website of Focus Features’ Africa First Program
Website of the African Movie Academy Awards
Daughter of Mumbi by Charity Wanjiku Waciuma
East African Publishing House, Nairobi, Kenya, 1969
During my visits to used book stores across the country, I am often happy to find African literature that is now out of print. Charity Waciuma’s memoir of growing up in colonial Kenya is one of those finds. This memoir covers Charity’s childhood and youth growing up during the ‘Mau Mau’ Emergency. The book is dedicated to the memory of her father, who was murdered during the Emergency. The book also full of information about Kikuyu history and traditions as well as Charity’s own reflections on how these traditions changed in the face of British colonial policy and Christian missionary activities.
Charity Waciuma is a Kenyan writer of children’s books; her books include Mweru, The Ostrich Girl (1966), The Golden Feather (196), and Merry-Making (1972). An excerpt of The Daughter of Mumbi can be found in the 1983 collection “Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa”, edited by Charlotte H. Bruner, and published by Heinemann as part of its African Writers Series.
The title of the memoir, Daughter of Mumbi, is a reference to the Kikuyu origin myth. According to Kikuyu tradition, Mumbi is the name of the founding mother of the Kikuyu people.
In the first chapter, Names, we learn how Charity got her Kikuyu name, Wanjiku. She writes:
In our country names are not chosen haphazardly; they are vitally bound up with being the sort of person you are. Any name includes many people who are now dead, others who are living, and those who are still not born. It binds its owner deep into Kikuyu history, beyond the oldest man with the longest memory. All our relatives to the furthest extent of the family, their actions, their lives and their children are an intrinsic part of our being alive, of being human, of being African, of being Kikuyu. (page 8)
Charity, as her father’s third daughter, was supposed to be named Waithira (the beautiful) after her eldest aunt on her father’s side according to Kikuyu custom, however as this aunt had died before Charity was born and one of Charity’s cousins who had been named after this aunt had died as well, the clan elders believed that Charity would die too if she was given this name. So, it was decided that she would be named Wanjiku (the gossip), after her father’s younger sister. Kikuyu naming traditions are quite elaborate and involve taking names from both the father’s and mother’s families. Kikuyu have no fixed family name in the European sense. Individuals are usually referred to as the daughter of, mother of or wife of. (For example, renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo’s son, who is also a writer, is named Mukoma wa Ngugi, meaning Mukoma son of Ngugi). Charity’s last name Waciuma (beads) is actually a nickname given to her grandmother’s father who had so many goats, a sign of weath in Kikuyu culture, that they called him beads because he had as many goats as beads in a necklace.
Charity’s father met an itinerant Christian missionary and decided that Christianity was for him. He had to run away from his village in order to study at the Church of Scotland Mission School at Tumu-tumu. After six months, he returned home but he was severely beaten by Charity’s grandfather, so he returned to the Mission School. He only returned again after another five years, in order to ask Charity’s grandfather to pay the bride price to the family of Charity’s mother, Wangui, who was a fellow runaway and student at the Mission School. Charity’s grandfather refused. Charity’s parents were married instead with the help of the missionaries and the money raised by two years of Charity’s father working as a carpenter for the Mission.
Charity learns about Kikuyu history and tradition at the feet of her grandfather, who, despite having rejected her father for becoming a Christian, eventually accepted his son and his new family back in to the fold. I wonder if many other early Kikuyu Christians must have lost their knowledge of their heritage because their families were less accepting. Charity reminisces:
My brothers, my sisters and I used to visit my grandmother every week after finishing Sunday School at the Church of Scotland Mission. When he heard where we had just come from, my grandfather would stand up and curse. “The young people of today have no respect for our god who dwells on Kirinyaga—Mount Kenya. He is the god of our forefather, Gikuyu, who lived at Mukuweini-wa-Gathanga in what the muthungu (European) has named Fort Hall District. Gikuyu lived there with his wife Mumbi and his nine daughters—Waithira, the beautiful, Wanjiku, the gossip, Njeri, the devoted, Wanjiru, the generous, Wairimu, the dullard, Wangui, the clever, Wambui, the talker, Wangari, the farmer, Wamuyu, the hardworking. (page 12)
Charity’s grandfather believes in the prophecies of Mugo wa Kibiru. According to Kikuyu tradition, Mugo wa Kirbiru forsaw the devastation that the Europeans would bring to the Kikuyu people. He is said to have foreseen such details as the building of the Uganda Railway and the coming of jiggers, insects that eat away at people’s feet that are believed to have been brought by the Europeans. Charity and her siblings often have to dig these insects out of their grandmother’s feet during their visits to her.
Charity’s grandfather is polygamous. His first wife, Charity’s grandmother, is Kikuyu but his second wife is a Maasai woman who her grandfather captured during a raid on a Maasai village. Reflecting on the subject of polygamy, Charity writes:
For myself, I decided against polygamy, but its rights and wrongs are still being argued continually and furiously in our schools and colleges and debating clubs. There seems to have been a time in our society when there were many more women than men, possibly as a result of raidings. Under these circumstances polygamy may be socially good. Even today our women like to get someone to help them with the hard work of the farm and the house. Polygamy is clearly second nature to most Kikuyu men. I hate it because it hurts the position and dignity of women and exaggerates the selfishness of men. But, however things go, it will be many decades before it genuinely comes to an end in Kenya. (pages 11-12)
In the second chapter, More of Grandfather’s Legends, her grandfather recounts a story of a bloody battle between Maasai and Kikuyu. In the third chapter, Doctors All, Charity discusses the difficulties faced by her father, who was trained as a health inspector, as he tries to convince the local people to trust in Western medicine instead of the cures of local traditional healers (Charity calls them “witchdoctors” and holds them in contempt, even deliberately playing pranks on them as a child by manipulating their superstitions). At one point, plague spreads through the village and instead of encouraging his people to be inoculated as Charity’s father had asked, the local chief tells them to go hide in ant-eaters’ holes. When people continue to die, the chief eventually tells his people to get inoculated at the dispensary run by Charity’s father. The District Commissioner soon disposes of this chief and replaces him with a young Catholic schoolteacher who is more amenable to Charity’s father’s wishes.
In the forth chapter, Muma: Yesterday’s Law, we learn about the local village court in Charity’s village that was preceded over by court elders, who themselves were appointed by the colonial government. The court was based on both colonial law as well as traditional Kikuyu law. Charity has memories of interacting with prisoners such as members of the independent African Christian Church, the Dini ya Israel:
Many of the prisoners were members of the Dini ya Israel, an independent Christian church. They wore long white robes. The men wore turbans and did not shave, like the Sikhs of India. They did not believe in the use of medicine. If God wanted to punish his children by making them sick man should not interfere. Similarly they opposed soil conservation. When God constructed the world he knew what he was doing and it was presumptuous to try and alter it. They therefore came into conflict with the administration which was trying to persuade the people to preserve their land by making terraces to hold up the red soil’s rush down the hillside in the rains.
In the week or so that they were kept in the local jail I learned many hymns and prayers from them. Too soon they were taken away to the higher court at Fort Hall administrative centre. On the way there, and indeed wherever they went, they sang their hymns, attracting the attention of all the people, especially the children. They always aroused great interest and they made many converts. (page 37)
I was curious to find out more about the Dini ya Israel. I couldn’t find any African Independent Church with this exact name, however, I did find information on the African Israel Nineveh Church, that was founded by Kenyan David Kivuli in 1942 and that is now one of the largest independent Christian churches in East Africa. If readers could confirm that this church is the same church as the Dini ya Israel Charity discusses, it would be much appreciated.
Charity has the change to observe court proceedings and chat with the court policeman who won’t respond to her when she asks if he takes bribes. Often, if the court elders could not draw their own conclusions about an accused innocence or guilt they would ask the accused to take an oath. This would involve getting the accused to slaughter a goat and swear that if he or she is not telling the truth he or she would be crushed like the goat they were slaughtering. It would be believed that if a person were lying he or she would be dead within a week. Of course, people who didn’t really believe in the power of Kikuyu traditions any longer could easily take the oath without fearing any real consequences. Many of the cases at the court were from young women demanding that the young men who got them pregnant admit that they were the fathers. As Charity reflects: “The younger educated men did not believe in the oaths and did not fear their power. Mostly they used to take the oath to deny their responsibility for the pregnancies of the girls who came to accuse them in the court. (page 40)” It is from observing the proceedings of such cases that Charity discovers how babies are really made. Her parents had always told her that babies were bought at the hospital.
Charity begins to reflect on the injustices of the Kenyan colonial government when she befriends older youth who are beginning to question the lack of education available in Kenya and the corruption of the courts.
Kiarie, who was at Makerere College, Kampala, in Uganda, told us all about his university, the studies, the students, the teachers and the people who lived in the town. He told us about the Kingdom of Buganda; how they had their own King, the Kabaka Mutesa, and their own government. Some of us thought he was making fun of us, so Ndegwa asked, “Do they have their own courts and Elders?” And he said, “Yes. And in their District Council meetings they don’t have a White chairman. Well, they really have some sort of ‘uhuru’—freedom.”
“Are many of them educated?”
“Yes, of course. They have many more schools and colleges than we do. I assure you it will take long before Kenya has so many schools.”
“Why do they have all these things, while we haven’t?”
“Mostly because there are hardly any settlers there and when the British Imperial Government arrived they found them with their own Kingdom.”
For a few minutes we got down to our washing, singing traditional songs as we worked. Then Ndegwa asked suddenly, “Have you heard about my father’s land case? You know he can’t take the oath because he is Christian and he won’t bribe the court Elders for the same reason. He can’t afford to pay for the appeal to the District Commissioner’s court if he loses.”
“My boy,” Kiarie replied with the weighty air of one who knows the world, “we all know how corrupt these so-called Elders have become. Judgment in a case these days depends on who has the longest purse. The poorer party always loses even if he is telling the truth—which he probably is. Corruption is gradually killing the helpless old people without money. In the old days the Elders were never bribed and corruption was strictly suppressed. You know at that time the Elders were elected by the people but now the Administration appoints these corrupted old men. They are not interested in the affairs of the ordinary African. All they want is to get rich quick, at the expense of their poor fellows who have no voice or power at all.” (pages 42-43)
In the fifth chapter, The Shamba, we learn that despite not respecting the healing methods of the “witchdoctors”, Charity’s father does rely on them to cast spells to protect his farmland from thieves—and it worked. Charity also observes the plight of the local people who worked on the coffee plantations of the Europeans for meager wages. Kenyans were forbidden to plant cash crops like coffee for a long time and then when permitted by the colonial authorities they had to plant a different variety and were subject to stricter regulations for its cultivation than the European settlers. Charity is also exited by news of the Ethiopian King visiting Kenya. She was surprised to learn that there was actually an African Christian King and she dreamed some day of meeting him and visiting Ethiopia.
In the sixth chapter, Itega and Irua, Charity discusses the challenges she and her sisters face because her parents refuse to have them circumcised as is Kikuyu custom. Charity’s grandfather is deeply shamed and has to face pressure from fellow elders to have his granddaughters circumcised. Unlike Charity’s parents, many other Christian Kikuyu in the village had their daughters circumcised. She writes:
About this time, we lost many of our good friends when they went through the circumcision ceremony. Because we Christian girls had not” been to the river” we were unclean. We were not decent respectable people and mothers would not have the shame of letting their daughters be seen in our company. It was believed that a girl who was uncircumcised would case the death of the circumcised husband. Moreover, an uncircumcised woman would be barren.” (page 61)
In the seventh chapter, Sunday, Charity relates her and her sisters growing boredom at church and the harassment they face from other girls their age because they are not circumcised. In order to entertain her sisters, Charity tells them a story based on a real incident:
The stranger went to the dispensary, where he found Miko the dresser. He demanded to see Waciuma. ‘I don’t know where he is,’ Miko replied. ‘You show me where he is,’ shouted the stranger, grabbing Miko’s shirt and slapping him on the face.
“Who are you?’ Miko asked the stranger.
“My name is Bartholomew, and I have been terribly beaten and burned by your people because I am Luo. I just came here to pay a visit. Some men across the river invited me to their home and while we were drinking they started abusing me; then they beat me. I cannot tell why,’ he concluded bitterly.
“Do you know why they beat you?” Miko said. “Because you are rude and very proud.” Then he slapped him on the face, and blood flowed from the stranger’s burned cheek.
“Just then daddy arrived. “Why did you slap this man and who is he?” “His name is Bartholomew and he is a Luo,” Miko told daddy.
“ Are you a Luo?” daddy asked Bartholomew, still looking at Miko. Then he slapped Miko so hard that later he said his fingers pained him. Miko fell down, and daddy did not help him up. He held Bartholomew’s hand, took him into the dispensary, and treated his woulds.” (pages 70-71)
I am not sure what the origins of animosity between the Luo and Kikuyu are but this incident seems to demonstrate that these tensions predate the conflicts over ethnic representation in the post-independence Kenyan government. Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Senior, was a Luo politician as was Tom Mboya.
to be continued…
A Puppet on a String: The Manipulation and Nationalization of the Female Body in the “Female Circumcision Crisis” of Colonial Kenya by Sarah Boulanger (essay available online)